Euro Reviews – ‘Wine: A Graphic History’ Is A Full-Bodied, Complex & Deep Look At The History Of The Grape

by Richard Bruton

As Wine – A Graphic History so neatly puts it – ‘The history of wine is nothing less than the history of civilisation’. And in one of the most entertaining and delightful history lessons you’ll ever experience authors Daniel Casanave and Benoist Simmat skillfully guide us through the long and fascinating history of getting the grape to your glass.

Yes, the history of wine and winemaking is so tied up with the history of society that any book attempting to tell the story of wine can’t help but tell a tale of the people, the politics, the religion, the civilisations that existed to bring that lovely glass of red or white to your table.

Like so many of these Graphic History books (the last I reviewed was the Graphic Medicine volume), the presentation is, through necessity, fast-paced and info heavy, but Simmat and Casanave get around this for the most part through a lightness in the narration and artwork allowing the book to feel more of a conversation and less of a dry factual account. What you get is a fast-paced and informative romp of a book, all narrated by the God of wine and revelry himself, Bacchus, albeit a very up-to-date Hipster Bacchus.

And you get an idea of the tone of the book right from the start where the Introduction is done as a tongue very much in cheek interview…

 

Yes, through the entire book, it’s this light-hearted narration that lifts this far above mere dry text to something more fluid and warm, giving the reader 250 pages tracing the history of wine from its earliest development through to the modern global industry of today.

Just a glance at the chapter headings for Wine – A Graphic History shows you the sheer scope of what’s being attempted here. We go from ‘In The Beginning‘ through The Gauls, ‘The Complex East‘, ‘Medieval Times‘, ‘The Age of Discovery‘, to ‘America and Beyond‘. This is definitely a book that encompasses the long and involved history of Wine.

Each chapter takes one aspect of wine and its development, yet all of them skillfully expand upon what has gone before, spinning out the factual tale of the development of wine.

We go from the earliest steps towards winemaking in the Middle East, the Egyptians, through the Mediterranean and into Ancient Greece and Rome, then track the more familiar route of winemaking through the Western World, including the dominance of French winemaking and the reasons why it all happened, from the Gauls onwards.

But this book also fills in the oft missed portion of the history of wine. As fast as it spread West, the grape was also spreading East, through Arab countries and as far as China. It was only Buddhism and its elevation of rice as the cornerstone of civilisation that kept grapes and vine-growing at bay and meant that the spread of the grape east was halted in favour of rice wine. But, as with so much, there’s evidence that wine from grapevines was invented in China at the same time as it sprang up in the West, as far back as 7,000 BCE.

And all through, as documented here, the development of wine not only goes hand-in-hand with civilisation but also with religion. And Wine – A Graphic History looks at the complex links between Church and Grape from the beginning.

In fact, from the very beginning, with the idea that the first thing that Noah did once the Flood had receded was plant a vineyard.

Poor Noah, having to wait all that time to get a drink once the waters receded. It’s no wonder that he was also the first Biblically recorded drunk…

The whole issue of the intertwining of Church and Grape is a fascinating one, covered not just in the intriguing chapters entitled, ‘The Blood of Christ‘ and ‘The Paradox of Islam‘ – that’s a fascinating idea right there and one that makes equally fascinating reading.

Where it all comes from, this idea of wine being an integral part of religious ceremonies, dates back to the notion of drinking the spirit of the God Dionysus (Bacchus) himself – and it’s an easy and obvious jump to go from that to the idea of wine substituting in religion as the blood of Christ.

And of course, even in the darkest of times, it was this inclusion of wine as one essential element of the Eucharist that meant the spread of Christianity around the world went hand-in-hand with the spread of wine.

When the Barbarians rampaged through the dying Roman Empire, they were greatly interested in drinking of wine but less concerned with learning about the cultivation of the grapes. Which is why the church, in those dark times, stepped in and became the leaders in winemaking. After all, you couldn’t have the blood of Christ running out, could you?

We also venture into the Islamic world and the early Muslim Empires of the 6th/7th Century in chapter 6’s ‘The Paradox of Islam.’

Here, Bacchus explains the how and the why that one of the most influential persons in the entire history of win was also the one who forbade so many of his followers from partaking in it.

The paradox, of course, is that wine is central to Islam in so many ways, chiefly the notion of wine being a part of the pleasures to be savoured and enjoyed in the afterlife, yet cannot, in theory, be enjoyed during one’s lifetime on Earth.

When Wine – A Graphic History gets to the more modern era, we learn all about Sir Kenelm Digby, a wonderfully named Englishman in 1642 and the invention of bottles, something that obviously revolutionised the transporting of wines, but had impacts far beyond that – for example, did you know it was the English that made it possible for the French to make Champagne so well?

Cue hipster Bacchus and a simply wonderful explanation…

It’s these wonderful explanations and so much more that made reading the extensive history of the winemaking covered here such a wonderful thing. The way the authors weave things in and out, collecting threads together through chapters, making the connections that lead us to the position we find ourselves in today.

In the end, Wine – A Graphic History successfully weaves its way through the history of us as well as the history of wine. It’s a book that skillfully navigates the line between detail-heavy fact listings and lightweight anecdotal reportage and the resulting read is something both full-bodied and approachable, complex and deep, a beautifully done thing.

 

Wine – A Graphic History. Art by Daniel Casanave, written by Benoist Simmat, colours by Patrice Larcenet, Amelie Lefevre, Christian Lerolle, Robin Millet, translation by Edward Gauvin. Published by SelfMadeHero.

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